World Cup 2006


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    Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Feb 18, 2004
    Update Mar 4, 2004
    Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
    Preview May 30, 2004 Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004 Preview Aug 9, 2004 Update Sep 20, 2004 Update Oct 26, 2004 Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004 Preview Feb 2, 2005 Update Feb 26, 2005 Update Apr 8, 2005 Update Jun 8, 2005 Update Aug 22, 2005 Update Sep 14, 2005 Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005 Preview Oct 29, 2005 Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005



    Wrap-up: CONCACAF qualifiers, Round 2

    by Peter Goldstein

        It was the big experiment: CONCACAF's first interzonal preliminaries in more than 30 years, and the first time the big teams would play minnows in the knockout stage. How did it go? Quite well, actually. There was only one embarrassment, Dominica-Mexico. And despite the bizarre draw, or perhaps because of it, there were a number of competitive matchups, and plenty of suspense. Several of the underdogs (Netherlands Antilles, Surinam, Cuba, Haiti, Bermuda) played well enough to keep the outcome in doubt, and if in the end there were no real upsets, it was nice to see the lesser teams get their chance. Still, 11 out of the 12 seeded teams won (Barbados was the only exception), and the semifinal cast of characters will be familiar. The group stage starts in mid-August, and we'll be there with another preview; here's a recap of the second round knockout action.


        Mexico went into this series with uncharacteristic calm (of course, there wasn't a chance they could lose). Ricardo LaVolpe closed the initial training sessions to the press, but that was just reflex; in the days before the first leg, he was relaxed and friendly, getting his pictures taken with fans in San Antonio, joking with astonished newspapermen, generally having a good time.

        As everyone knew, the game was set for San Antonio because Dominica didn't have a stadium available. But you heard it here first: next time they will. That's because prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica (population about 70,000) signed a deal with a slightly larger country known as the People's Republic of China (population really really a lot). The Chinese agreed to rebuild the Windsor Park stadium (plus some hospitals, roads, and schools, but those don't matter), and all Dominica had to do was boot the Taiwanese embassy out of the country and recognize the PRC as sole representative of the Chinese people. Hey, no problem. As Skerrit very properly reasoned, totalitarian governments come and go, but the World Cup is forever.

        The opener was the very first international soccer game in the history of San Antonio, and a raucous 37,000 showed up, four times the crowd for USA-Grenada the week before. The throng was 99% pro-Mexican, no surprise. But a few Dominican fans were spotted waving the hammer and sickle and shouting "Crush the running dog lackey imperialist 3-5-2 with the total football promulgated by our glorious Chairman!"

        Mexico started three forwards, which frankly seemed unfair. Dominica countered with zonal marking--they got the zonal part right, but not the marking, and after a while the zonal part wasn't operating either. (One Mexican paper described their football as "prehispanico," which means on the level of the Aztecs and Mayans.) Mexico got 10, and probably could have had twice that. But give Dominica credit; they played hard and fair for 90 minutes. Man of the match was veteran striker Francisco Palencia, who had famously been left on the bench by Javier Aguirre during Mexico's 2002 World Cup run. No doubt he'd rather have played against Italy than Dominica, but granted a surprise recall by LaVolpe, he made the most of the opportunity. As his teammates scored in bunches around him, he had three shots cleared off the line, missed an open goal from 4 yards, and had a header spectacularly saved by keeper Nathaniel Angol. Finally, with the score 9:0, deep into second-half injury time, a Mexican shot deflected off a defender and off the post, and there it was, spinning across the line in front of a completely open goal. With the instinct of the great ones, Palencia caught up when the ball was approximately 99.9999% over the line, and made no mistake.

        A ten-goal win usually means a happy coach, but not in Mexico. The team had played well, but LaVolpe was upset because the press had failed to appreciate it. At first he refused to meet with them at the airport, then called their questions "offensive." The highlight of the exchange came when he challenged reporters to describe the formation he had used after sending in some second-half substitutes. When one reporter responded "Um, aren't you supposed to tell us?" LaVolpe stalked off.

        The second game was back in Mexico, in Aguascalientes, where the fans held a week-long fiesta. It was the first time the national team had ever played there, so they took to the streets, serenaded the players, and crowded in to watch the team practice. Children ooh'd and ahh'd over the much taller and darker-skinned Dominicans. Everyone was having fun--except CONCACAF, who decided that the field as laid out was exactly two centimeters too narrow. Worse, the Mexican FA had failed to set aside special boxes for the delegation. (Geez, get a life, people.)

        Dominica promised to do better in the second game, but even a feng shui expert and two truckloads of Moo Shu Pork wouldn't have been enough. The final was 8:0 instead of 10:0, mainly because Angol made a few more spectacular saves this time. LaVolpe did his usual share of grumbling--the boys hadn't always executed well, they should have shot from outside the box more, etc.--but at least he didn't go out of his way to humiliate anyone.

        So it was left to the Dominicans to provide the proper perspective. To a man they were happy with the experience. No Dominican team had ever dreamed of traveling to Mexico and the USA before. Angol was particularly thrilled: he had the autographed jersey of Mexican keeper Oscar "Conejo" Pérez, and was going to give it to his son. Coach Don Leogal proclaimed that next time around they'd come back to Mexico and play even better. How do you say "Olé!" in Chinese?


        The series with Grenada saw one of the most important milestones in American soccer history. Earnie Stewart's 100th cap? Nope. The USA's first World Cup tie against a country they had invaded? Nope. It's that Colorado Rapids, with a match coming up against Kansas City, refused to release Pablo Mastroeni for more than 3 days before the opener. As a result, coach Bruce Arena left Mastroeni and three Kansas City players off the side. OUR VERY FIRST club-country controversy!!!!

        With America now a real football nation, thank you, it was left to Grenada to provide the weirdness. A month before the game, the federation removed coach Alister Debelotte--then reinstated him the next day. No explanation was ever given, although the odds are it was because he couldn't tell his players apart. See, when Grenada took the field for the first game, he had put Nigel Bishop on the team sheet, but sent Everett Watts out on the field. The Americans protested, and officials took 15 minutes to sort it out; they finally decided to let Watts start, probably because they realized it wouldn't make any difference. Or maybe they were confused by Grenada's shirt-numbering system--having apparently just discovered the zero, they seemed determined to make as much use of it as possible. Franklyn Baptiste's uniform read "05" and Shalrie Joseph's read "08". What's up with that?

        Grenada's strategy for the opener was to let the Yanks shoot, and get in the way. The USA took 37 shots, and the ones that didn't fly wide somehow found every part of the Grenadian anatomy. At one point, Ricky Charles, nominally playing left wingback, made his way to the goal line and stopped shots from Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna in rapid succession. What could have been an epic rout wound up a simple 3:0, with the third goal coming only in second-half injury time. One major positive for the USA: midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, known for his speed, stamina, and utter inability to finish, somehow managed two goals. On the other hand, Jovan Kirovski, known for his utter inability to finish, utter inability to finish, and utter inability to finish, got none. Oh, and P.S. George Weah was at the game.

        Given the political history, we had wondered about the atmosphere for the return leg. As it turned out, things were comfortable, even jolly, with Grenadian and American fans mixing freely without apparent awkwardness. Interest in the game was so strong they had moved it from the football stadium to the cricket stadium, where more than 15,000 piled in to see the action. The USA, having qualified for the upcoming International Cricket Council's Champions Trophy (bet you didn't know that!), felt right at home.

        Lucky the game wasn't cricket, though, because rain would have stopped play long before tea. Not to mention that the wicket would have been a trifle unplayable. The teams sloshed around awkwardly for 90 minutes, inexplicably keeping the ball on the carpet and watching passes stop in the standing water. The USA got two early goals sandwiched around a suspect Grenada PK, and then sort of mailed it in. But the Spice Boyz showed some enterprising attacking play, with Ricky Charles and Jason Roberts tossing a few yorkers just to keep things interesting. A second yellow on Brian Benjamin in the 54th minute got Grenada down to 10 men, the visitors and then the home side scored another goal each, and the game wound to a peaceful conclusion.

        The weather aside, it had been a pleasant experience. The 0:3 scoreline in the opener had flattered Grenada considerably, but the 2:3 here wasn't that far out of line, and a one-goal loss was an excellent achievement for the islanders. The USA was happy, too: they won, no one got hurt, and Beasley scored another. Coaches Arena and Debellotte were seen on the sidelines discussing the relative merits of Viv Richards and Brian Lara, and everyone made a date to do this again sometime, leaving out the invasion if possible.

    Netherlands Antilles-Honduras

        Bora Milutinovic's job had been in danger up until a week before the opener, but all that changed when Honduras lost 0:4 to the USA. Now it was his life that was in danger. The only question was how many bodyguards to hire and what weaponry to use. Bora kept his cool, though, having cleverly made sure the team pitched camp in Florida, far away from potential assassins.

        Meanwhile, the Antilles decided to play it confident. Federation officials predicted victory: the raucous Ergilio Hato Stadium crowd, the artificial turf, the team's preparation, all meant an easy win. When the head of the FA was asked why, with the second-leg game in Honduras on a Saturday, the team wasn't scheduled to fly home until Monday, he replied: because they were going to spend Sunday celebrating their victory!

        As noted, one of the Antillean advantages was supposed to be the artificial turf at Ergilio Hato. It looked pretty silly--sort of like fried corn meal painted green--but didn't seem to have much effect on the game. It was the Antillean pressure, and the considerable technical skills of players like striker Brutil Hosé and midfielders Daniel Rijaard and Giovanni Franken, that had Honduras in trouble. The Antilles had more than their share of the play, and Bora was spotted on the sidelines with a laptop, furiously researching countries that had no diplomatic ties with Honduras.

        But what the Antilles didn't have was David Suazo. Suazo, 25, is the great unknown CONCACAF star--playing for Cagliari in Serie B (Serie A next year), where he's known as "King David," he's been far out of sight of the fans. In the 2002 qualifiers, he was a very rough diamond: incredible speed on the ball (one of his nicknames is "El Hijo del Viento," meaning "The Son of the Wind"), but inconsistent technique and little tactical awareness. But with a few years of European football under his belt, he's emerged as a complete player. Against the Antilles he was magnificent, heading home the first goal on a cross from fellow Serie B man Julio César "Rambo" de León, and doing it all himself on the second, muscling a defender for a long ball, racing into the box, and finishing into the far corner. As they say, different class.

        But even with Suazo rampant, Honduras was lucky to get the win. Early in the second half, down 0:1, Hosé hit the crossbar, then the post. Then, 7 minutes after Suazo's second goal, with Honduras apparently in full control, the defense let Hosé through, and he made it 2:1. And with only three minutes left in regulation time, Hosé broke through again to get the equalizer--only to see it disallowed for a very questionable offside. Even the Hondurans thought the goal should have stood.

        Having failed to win the last zillion games, Honduran fans were just happy to finish on top, and the press gave Bora some breathing space--for about a day and a half, that is, until the team got home. At the ensuing press conference, the media went after him for leaving striker Carlos Pavón out of the lineup, for choosing a poor assistant coach, for causing dissension within the team, and even for spending too much on computer software. Bora somehow held his temper--barely--but he must have wondered if the second game could be moved to Manitoba.

        As it turned out, he had no worries. Despite a waterlogged pitch, the home side dominated from start to finish. Amado Guevara directed the attack superbly and scored the opening goal, and Suazo was again unstoppable. King David started the sequence on Guevara's goal, then scored the second himself by blowing past the defense and neatly finishing his own rebound. In the 34th minute, he again left the defense for dead, and Eugene Martha had no recourse but to bring him down, leaving the Antilles with 10 men. Finally, in the second half, he overwhelmed the centerbacks and passed to Édgard Alvarez for goal number three. With the game in the bag, Bora pointedly sent Pavón on the field, and he scored the fourth.

        After such a comprehensive victory, everyone was falling over themselves to apologize. So Bora lapped it up for a week, and then, in consummate style, thumbed his nose at the whole lot of them. First he called all the way from Australia to say he probably wouldn't be back; a couple of days later, in Mexico, he called again, then sent an e-mail to finish it off. Didn't meet with anyone, didn't have to cross the border. Shame and embarrassment all round in Honduras, and don't think for a moment Bora isn't enjoying it. He'll land on his feet, of course; by my count, there are nearly 200 national teams he hasn't coached yet. My money's on someplace much safer next time--like Iraq.


        After months of watching the Netherlands Antilles stock up on foreign players, Surinam finally decided to get in on the act. Except they didn't quite have the hang of it. As anyone can tell you, the key to this international football thing is to naturalize all the Brazilians you can find, or bribe some European stars whose grandfathers once stopped off during a round-the-world cruise to pick up some shaving cream. Yet with Brazil their southern neighbor, and potential Davids, Kluiverts and Gullits plying their trade all over the Old World, all Surinam could dredge up were defender Dennis Baino (Belgian 3d division) and striker Dennis Purperhart (Dutch 3d division, 35 years old!), both of whom had played for the side before.

        At least they were adding players. Guatemala was subtracting them: four members of the roster, including probable starting keeper Miguel Klee, were suspended for failing to report on time to training camp. Hard to fault them, really: they had just helped Coban Imperial win the Guatemalan championship for the very first time, and decided to join their teammates back home in celebration instead. Coach Ramón Maradiaga was generally supported for his decision, but some wondered whether he'd have done it if the players had been from one of the big clubs, like Municipal or Communicaciones.

        When the depleted squad got down to Paramaribo, they were greeted by a pitch that had obviously been host to a hippopotamus convention. Brown, muddy, drenched with rain, it was no place for the Guatemalan technical style. That was good news for Surinam, who, unlike their Antillean neigbors, rely primarily on power and pace. They repeatedly outmuscled the smaller Guatemalans, and scored an early goal when Dwight Panka sped down the left wing and crossed for Purperhart to stab home. Ricardo Trigueño, the second-string keeper, had reacted slowly; Klee might have cut out the cross. Guatemala kept their poise, though, and playmaker Gonzalo Romero figured out that the ball was more dangerous in the air than on the ground. In the 36th minute he chipped a neat pass to Dwight Pezzarossi, who headed it down at the top of the area for Guillermo "El Pando" Ramírez to drive in. But that was all they would get. In a vigorous but sloppy game--the best anyone could manage under the conditions--Surinam had the better chances, and the chapines were probably lucky to get out with a draw.

        Despite the poor result, Guatemala were confident of winning the home leg, and the atmosphere back home was pleasant enough. A mariachi band gave the team a Fathers' Day serenade, and the players held a mock press conference with 5-year-old kids asking the questions. (Judging from the transcript, Guatemalan reporters had better watch their backs.) There was some bad news--Romero was out with an injury--but some good news, too, because striker Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz of Los Angeles Galaxy was finally recovered from an ankle sprain, and ready to play.

        As it turned out, both the good and bad news made a difference. In the 21st minute El Pescadito did his cherry-picking thing, waiting at the back post to head in a Nestor Martínez cross for the lead. But Surinam stayed in a defensive shell, and without Romero, the home side had little creativity to offer. Although they controlled the game, they were rarely convincing. At halftime it was still 1:0, and the fans were getting impatient. In the second half Guatemala created a few more chances, but didn't seem able to finish--so in the 80th minute it was still 1:0, and now the fans were whistling and booing. After all, a single mistake, a single Surinam goal, and the series would be equal on aggregate. But finally Pezzarossi, who had been the pick of the team all day, rammed one in for the clinching goal. Of course Guatemala relaxed, and of course two minutes later Surinam put one on the board themselves. Suddenly, with only 7 minutes left, another Surinam goal and Guatemala would be out altogether. But in the 85th minute it was Ruiz again, at the back post again, gathering one in after the keeper had let the ball slip. Final 3:1, aggregate 4:2. At game's end, the spectators cheered a little, and whistled a lot more.

        Maradiaga was upset with the fans' response, but you could hardly blame them. The FA remains supportive, partly because they know the FIFA suspension left preparations well behind the rest of the region. Ruiz also hasn't had much time with the squad, and needs to learn how to combine better with Pezzarossi. On the whole, Guatemala didn't look bad, just not quite sharp. So no panic yet. But the Group of Death is coming up, and they'll have to be a lot more convincing to contend.


        Canada-Belize was less a qualifying tie than a vacation. The Belizeans, with no pressure on them at all, got a week in Canada and some cooler weather. They also got the chance to play two full internationals, which was two more than they had played in the past two years. Canada got an easy opponent, plus the chance to play two full home internationals--which was two more than they had played in the past three-and-a-half years. With the result pretty much a foregone conclusion, everyone could have some fun.

        That didn't stop Belize from taking the game seriously, of course. They trained dutifully back home, won a friendly against a Guatemalan league club, and made all the right noises about winning. True, they were without their best player, Norman "Tilliman" Nuñez, who had declined the call-up, perhaps hoping for a trip to Rio instead. But they had Garrincha on their side--that's head coach Anthony "Garrincha" Adderley, a grocer in his day job, presumably known for his "falling mangoes" free kicks.

        As for Canada, they got all their players together without much fuss, played a friendly at Wales (loss 0:1), and hunkered down for the games in Kingston. That's Kingston, Ontario, by the way, as distinct from Kingston, Jamaica, where the Reggae Boyz play, and Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where SVG hangs out. (Can't we get the Queen equal time?) Kingston isn't exactly a hotbed of the game, but there weren't many alternatives. Good soccer sites are at a premium in Canada--although if they land the 2007 FIFA U-20s, as expected, they're going to build a new stadium in Toronto.

        For the opening leg, the weather was rainy, the pitch slippery, the crowd smallish (8,245) but appreciative, and the score 4:0 to Canada. As with USA-Grenada, it could have been a lot more: a couple of crossbars, the usual quota of misses, etc. (The wire service story opener: "Muffing chances, left, right, and centre...") The Canadian players were philosophical about the whole thing, but of course they could afford to be. Coach Frank Yallop: "We could have scored 10 goals, I'm not lying." (We believe you, Frank.) In a phone interview with Keith Swift, reporter for Channel 7 Belize, the Little Belizean Bird responded:

    Swift: "Coach, I have also read of the Canadian players bragging that they could have scored 10 goals."

    Addereley: "Yes but they didn't talk about the ones that we could have scored too."

    Swift:"And how many are those?"

    Addereley: "Well we would have scored 2 or 3 goals and that would have reduced that 10. It would have never been 10. But football is not about what you miss. It is about what you scored."

    Later he elaborated: "Nothing went wrong. In the first game I thought we got there prepared and we were high spirited. What they did was put us in the change-off room and they asked us to go out in what we call our practice uniform. We changed and the sun was hot and we went inside to put on our game uniform. But by the time we came out it was rainy and it was windy and cold. I don't know if that affected the boys' minds."

    And that's why he's a head coach.

        For the second leg, the crowd was smaller (5,123) and the weather was better. Yallop rested six of his starters, Adderley benched four of his own, and the game turned out to be surprisingly tight. Belize played quite well, keeping Canada scoreless until first-half injury time, when Tomas Radzinski rifled one in. The game was very physical (the Canadians had bought shin pads for Belize, so they figured they'd try them out), with cards of all colors flying. But Dwayne De Rosario, kicked hard by the opposition all day, came to the rescue, scoring twice and creating a third to produce another 4:0. Now it was the players' turn to make excuses:

    Charlie Slusher: "At one point it seemed like our players just lost sight of the whole game plan and stuff like that. I think that was the main reason why it was difficult for us to get a goal or even have a fighting chance of winning the game."

    Robert Muschamp, Captain: "We faced some problems out there that I really wouldn't want to mention at this point...I think that if everybody had gone there with one mindset, I think it could have probably been a different result."

        Or maybe if they had played with 22 men instead of 11. Oh, well, vacation over, back to work. Canada goes into the cauldron, and Belize tries to rebuild a program shattered by internal disputes. My advice is to get a home game next time--I'm sure Beijing can use another vote.

    Dominican Republic-Trinidad & Tobago

        I'm a CONCACAF fan. I know the difference between Aruba and Anguilla, I don't laugh when the Gold Cup is mentioned, and given the choice of France-England live or Netherlands Antilles-Honduras tape delay, I unhesitatingly choose the latter. Give me a team from the Confederation Of North And Central America And Caribbean Association Football, and I'll support them.

        But--isn't there something we can do about Trinidad & Tobago? Like send them to Oceania, or something? Look, these guys lost by three goals to Scotland. Nobody loses by three goals to Scotland. San Marino doesn't lose by three goals to Scotland. (Well, actually, they do--it was 0:4 last time out. But the previous time it was 0:2.) And then, back home no less, they lost by three goals to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, who last scored three goals during the reign of William and Mary. Albania would wipe the floor with these guys. So would Lesotho. I can't even imagine what would happen if they played Solomon Islands.

        Fortunately for T&T, though, their next opponent was Dominican Republic, and even T&T couldn't lose by three goals to DR. With a mere 1500 Dominicans in attendance, the Soca Warriors looked bad but still dominated the action, and somehow managed a goal off a corner in the 62nd minute. They didn't score the second until minute 90, and got out with a 2:0 win when an injury-time Dominican shot hit the post. After the previous embarassments, no one was complaining, even when they found their hotel rooms had been burglarized.

        They weren't even complaining in the Dominican Republic. They knew they had been overmatched, and were happy to lose by only two. Besides, they were too busy gushing about keeper Junior Mejia and midfielder Vicente Espinal. Mejia plays with Firpo of El Salvador, and on his form against T&T was declared the best keeper in the history of DR. Espinal's story is even better: Dominican born, he moved to Italy with his family when he was 10, took up football, was signed by Atalanta, and actually played a few games in Serie A. Now 22, he's on loan to Palazzola in the depths of Serie C2, but for the proud Dominicans it might as well be AC Milan. He wasn't called up for the game--he just happened to be visiting on vacation--but he gladly suited up, winning a place in the hearts of quisqueyanos everywhere.

        The only question for the second game was how badly T&T would play. The answer: pretty badly, at least in the first half. In fact, DR should have taken the lead in the 17th minute when a PK was awarded for a foul on striker Omar Zapata. But keeper Clayton Ince dove to his right and saved the penalty, and that was pretty much it for the Republic. So it was left to the fans to watch the Soca Warriors miss chance after chance, and to wonder whether they could get Tonga on the schedule. But in the 48th minute, Jason Scotland, one of the worst offenders, finally got T&T on the board. Energized, or maybe just waking out of their stupor, they scored three more, putting everyone out of their misery.

        Right now T&T football looks so hopeless that we'll mention some encouraging signs just to keep things balanced. Denzil Theobald scored on a beautiful volley in the second leg. Youngster Brent Rahim looks like a fixture on the right of midfield, and Marlon Rojas is ready to claim the left back spot. Keeper looks solid, with Ince and Shaka Hislop. But let's face it, right now it's just not happening, and T&Ters can be thankful that their toughest rival for the Hexagonal is St. Kitts & Nevis. If they can't make the grade even then, it's time for Guam and the Maldives.

    Cuba-Costa Rica

        Last time we reported that coach Steve Sampson, despite indifferent results, was still getting support from the press. But when Costa Rica barely escaped with a 2:2 draw at Cuba, the knives were officially out--and with good reason.

        The problems started a week before the game, when sweeper Mauricio Wright, one of the 2002 WC standouts, left the team. Whether he quit or was thrown off was never quite explained, but obviously there was some major dispute with Sampson. (USA fans will need no reminding that Sampson kicked captain John Harkes off the team for insubordination not long before the 1998 WC in France.)

        To make matters worse, with Wright absent, Sampson suddenly decided to switch from a 3-man back line to a 4-man back line. (Again, USA supporters will recall the infamous 3-6-1 unveiled not long before the 1998 World Cup.) Now, I'm no tactical genius, but I've followed Costa Rican football for a while now, and this team doesn't play well with four at the back. That's just not their system. In the 2002 qualifying cycle, they struggled for months with a 4-man back line under coach Gilson Nunes--when he was fired, and Alexandre Guiamares restored the usual 3-man line, they went on a rampage. Sampson not only put four at the back, he also started two defensive midfielders. Costa Ricans cannot play with two defensive midfielders. They prefer two wing midfielders and at most one holding player. Against Cuba, in a 4-2-3-1, then a 4-4-2, they had no cohesion whatsoever. Although they managed goals on a set piece and a defensive giveaway, they were outplayed all over the field, and only a brilliant game by keeper Ricardo González kept them from an embarrassing defeat.

        The key man for Cuba, as always, was striker Lester Moré, who drew a penalty and converted it, then headed in the second goal for good measure. "Moregol," as he is known in Cuba, is a tall, skilled, intelligent attacker, who could probably play for any club in North America, and maybe a few in Europe. He's kept at home by the Castro policy, but any serious CONCACAF fan can tell you how good he is. Sampson, incredibly, expressed surprise at how well Moré played. Uh, Steve, you've been scouting the opposition, haven't you?

        Training for the second game began in a crisis atmosphere. Sampson blamed the long league season for leaving him with tired players and insufficient training time. He had a point--club/country battles are a long-term problem in Costa Rica--but no one was going to let him off the hook. José Francisco Porras, third-choice keeper, was furious at not even making the substitutes bench in the opening leg, and followed Wright off the team. Then Sampson announced he was going to keep the senior members out of the Copa America, leaving the team to rely on the U-23's. This upset Rodrigo Kenton, the youth coach, who wanted his charges fresh for the Olympics. The tension grew every day. It was hard to imagine losing to Cuba at home, but the way things were going you never knew...

        Sampson went back to the standard 3-5-2 with one defensive midfielder, and Costa Rica started the return leg strongly. Walter Centeno was playmaking in the middle, Try Bennett looked good on the right wing, and the side was dominating play. But the energy faded quickly, and before long Costa Rica were, humiliatingly, thrust back on defense. On the half hour they managed a goal on a counterattack, a long ball from defender Gilberto Martínez leading to a strike by Ronald Gómez. But that was the signal for Cuba to step it up: they controlled the rest of the half, and got the equalizer when Alain Cervantes took a long ball from Pedro Faiffe and beat González.

        At this point a lot of observers would have bet on a Cuban victory. But somehow the ticos regrouped and took control. They had most of the play in the second half, and held Moré in check. But their attack was intermittent, their finishing nonexistent, their spirit lost. With a final score of 1:1, they qualified for the second round via away goals, "the route of shame," as one paper put it. After the game, one reporter asked the head of the FA how much it would cost to buy out Sampson's contract.

        Well, somebody knows the answer. Two days later Sampson was, to put it charitably, let go. He responded calmly: he had done a professional job, he didn't think the problems were his fault, he understood the decision. He also said he'd hang around Costa Rica for a couple of weeks, which didn't seem like a good idea. The new coach, by the way, is Jorge Luis Pinto, a Colombian who won two Costa Rican league titles with Alajualense--where he played four at the back. Watch closely.

        Speaking of coaches, let's say a word for the guy from Peru, the oddly-named Miguel Company, who has brought the Cubans so far. Back in the 1998 Gold Cup, Cuba lost to Costa Rica 2:7. In the 2003 Gold Cup, under Company, it was only 0:3, and the game was a lot closer than that. And now 3:3 on aggregate. That's a magnificent result, and though Cuba's not ready to win the Gold Cup yet, you can only wonder what might have happened if the draw had been fairer. Company's place is set, if he wants to keep it; if not, we'll follow his future career with interest.


        If ever a team had the motivation to win, it was Haiti. On the road for months, compelled to watch from afar as violence and flooding ravaged their country, their series with Jamaica was as good as a World Cup Final. Right back Stephane Guillaume had the quote of the year: "I don't care if I lose both eyes and my legs to make it happen." Before the opener it looked like Jamaica might lose a few eyes and legs themselves. First Tyrone Marshall went out injured, followed by Ian Goodison, so the team had only two healthy centerbacks. Theodore Whitmore, Andy Williams, Ricardo Gardner, and Ricardo Fuller, all potential starters, were nursing injuries of varying degrees. With striker Onandi Lowe left off because of UK drug charges, the side was dangerously shorthanded. In the last days the medical worries eased a bit, but Goodison, Gardner, and Fuller, all of whom would start, were still less than 100%.

        Jamaica had plenty more reasons to be wary. Haiti would be inspired, and would get strong support from the Florida crowd. And the Reggae Boyz don't travel well. Although they had beaten both Uruguay and Venezuela at home, when they went to England for the Unity Cup, they lost to Nigeria and Ireland, no goals scored in two games. And so, acting on a football coach's most ancient instinct, Carl Brown decided to play it safe. He went with a 5-3-2, with what amounted to three defensive midfielders: Micah Hyde, Fabian Davis, and Gardner. Left on the bench were more attacking options, such as Whitmore, Williams, and Jermaine Johnson.

        Their fears appeared to be justified only 30 seconds into the game, when Haitian striker Jean-Phillipe Peguéro was awarded a penalty. "Très juste," commented the Haitian press. "Cheat," said keeper Donovan Ricketts. But Corriolan Wadson blasted the PK over the bar, and the teams were still level. The game was difficult, physical, hotly contested, with the Haitians using midfield pressure to keep the upper hand. Jean-Michel Boucicault was looking dangerous on Haiti's right wing, and Wadson was the main ball-winner in the middle. But they created few chances, and it was Jamaica, against the run of play, scoring on a 39th-minute Marlon King volley. Haiti kept the pressure on in the second half, and got their reward when Peguéro drew another penalty (less controversial this time), stepping up himself to level the score. Jamaica was nervous--at one point Ricketts and Goodison got badly tangled, and handed Peguéro an open shot. But he missed, and like the rest of his teammates, lacked the cutting edge on the night. At full-time it was still 1:1.

        Neither side was satisfied. Haiti had needed a win before going to Kingston; Jamaica was theoretically OK with a draw, but knew they had played badly. The press pushed Brown on his tactics, asking if the defensive lineup had hurt the team's approach play. He answered lucidly: "I'm not certain that I could look at you and point to any one reason this wasn't happening because it is something that we worked on pretty hard all week but we have seen with these basic set of players in the three games that we've played here that we had that going, that we have been moving out of defence into attack or vice-versa. We really have to look at everything that surrounded this game. The expectations of Jamaicans both home and abroad probably was the biggest factor for our performance." Huh?

        With the return leg coming up, Jamaica held all the cards. They had a draw and a road goal, and were back home in the "The Office," where they were almost unbeatable. The week between games had allowed some injuries to heal as well. So Brown shifted gears and went on the attack: a 4-4-2 with both Whitmore and Williams in midfield, and hot striker Damani Ralph joining Marlon King up front. What did Haiti have? Just their courage, their will, and the support of all the neutrals in the world.

        It was over very quickly. King scored in the 4th, 14th, and 31st minute (FIFA has the second goal as an own goal), and the Reggae Boyz eased home. In retrospect, Brown's tactics had done the job. And let's face it: Haiti had the desire, but Jamaica had the weapons, and aggregate 4:1 was about what might have been predicted beforehand. Haiti coach Fernando Clavijo, Uruguay-born, USA-bred, was gracious in defeat, and Haitian fans all over the world saluted his effort on behalf of their homeland. A few of the players will go to their foreign clubs; some may try to stay in the USA. Most will go home. Let's hope for the best-case scenario: a stable government, quiet streets, and the local championnat starting up again as soon as possible.

    El Salvador-Bermuda

        El Salvador aproached the Bermuda series with something like dread. There was no way to win, really--a loss to the islanders would be devastating, anything less than a decisive victory would be seen as failure. Fans were turning their backs on the team, and problems with the starting eleven weren't helping. Striker Ronald Cerritos (DC United) was unhappy with the FA, and coach Juan Ramón Paredes didn't seem to want him anyway. First-choice keeper Juan José Gómez was out with an injury. And 24 hours before the game, the coach still hadn't decided on his strikers; Rudis "Rudy" Corrales, the most talented of all, hadn't scored for the side in ages, and no one knew whether he belonged in the lineup.

        With their best team in ages, Bermuda should have been sky-high, but things were going badly there too. For one thing, it looked as if the youth squads would be withdrawn from upcoming tournaments for lack of practice space. And despite the senior squad's unprecedented success, sponsors still weren't ponying up for the team. Then it looked as if Bermuda might lose the second leg altogether--amazingly, the FA had failed to ensure sufficient hotel space for the Salvadorans, and there was talk about moving the game to the USA. Sports Minister Dale Butler was furious, coach Kenny Thompson was anxious, and the whole nation seemed to be embarrassed. Travel schedules were eventually rearranged, and the home leg was saved, but nerves were seriously frayed.

        The opening leg in El Salvador was high drama. The stadium was less than one-quarter full, and the fans came ready to whistle. Paredes decided to gamble on Corrales, pairing him with José "Chepe" Martínez. They got a dream start when only 13 minutes in, Martínez connected on a cross from playmaker Ernesto Góchez. But Bermuda refused to lie down, and El Salvador's problems started to take their toll. In the 29th minute, Stanton Lewis sent in a cross, and second-string keeper Santos Rivera came out late; John Barry Nusum headed in, and the game was tied. And Corrales started to miss opportunities. With the home side dominant, time and again he had the ball on his feet or his head with a chance to score, but he couldn't get it in the net. Luckily, Bermuda's problems were even worse: first Nusum, then star Shaun Goater had to come off with injuries. All they had left was a rearguard action--but it was dogged and it was enough. El Salvador got one more, on a header by defender Victor Velázquez off a corner, but that was all. The home side was booed off the field, and Bermuda went home down only 1:2, with a chance to win it.

        El Salvador got one piece of good news for the second leg--Gómez would be back in goal. Everything else was a disaster. Flu hit the camp hard: several players were subpar, and defender Marvin González didn't even make the trip. But he could count himself lucky. Because of the Bermuda hotel shortage, the team had to fly through Miami for a night in New York City, and flight and passport delays turned the trip into a marathon. Arriving in NYC at 10:30 at night, they had to get up at 4 in the morning to catch the flight to Bermuda, where they would have only one night's stay. By their own admission, they were exhausted.

        But Bermuda couldn't catch a break either. Goater was definitely out for the second game; so was another pro striker, Kyle Lightbourne. And the hotel shortage got them too--after a long search, they wound up staying in Willowbank, a Christian hotel without a bar. "This should hardly bother Bermuda's players," commented the Royal Gazette, "as alcohol is surely one of the last things on their minds at present." Care to bet on that?

        The atmosphere in Hamilton was electric, with fans overflowing the 4500-seat stadium--and only four minutes in they went wild, when the Caymanese referee awarded Bermuda a doubtful PK for a push in the box. Shannon Burgess converted, and if somehow the score could stay the same, Bermuda would go through. But El Salvador finally got a break themselves: in the 19th minute, Alfredo Pacheco's free kick deflected off the wall, leaving keeper Timmy Figureido helpless.

        Back and forth: only two minutes later the home side was ahead again, on a Nusum header off a cross. And now the tide seemed to turn toward Bermuda. They were running the Central Americans ragged, dominating midfield, every bit ready to secure an historic victory. But football is, and always will be, the cruelest game. In the 40th minute, a rare El Salvador chance found Corrales, against all odds in the lineup again, in good position in the box. The cross came through, Corrales dove to head into goal--and Bermuda captain Kentoine Jennings, standing on the line, instinctively stuck out his arm. Red card, penalty converted, and the game was over. Bermuda, down to 10 men, needed two goals, and although they gave it their all, never looked like winning. Jennings was inconsolable after the game. It was a bittersweet end to what had been a magnificent campaign. Bermudians can only hope sponsors and government reward the achievement, and give the side the support it deserves in future competitions.

        As for El Salvador, they had survived, and that was enough, for the moment. It's a young team--too young, say the critics, who want Paredes to call in some veteran players--and the experience can only help them mature. But the Hexagonal? With USA, Jamaica, and an improved Panama in the way, best not to think about it just yet.

    Panama-St. Lucia

        When the draw was announced, this looked like a matchup with upset possibilities. Panama, the lesser Central American side; St. Lucia, the strong Caribbean side. If things went poorly for the one team and well for the other, we could have ourselves another El Salvador-Bermuda.

        Except things can also go in the opposite direction--and boy, did they ever. With Colombian coach José "Cheché" Hernández pulling the strings, Panama had an excellent runup: good results in friendlies, all the overseas pros available, no serious injuries. St. Lucia had--well, something else.

        To start off, the FA went into freefall. As we mentioned last time, league competition had already been suspended, and key offices were vacant. Then things got worse. A vote of no confidence asked the executive council to step down--but the council refused to, arguing that the vote had been unduly influenced. Several affiliates then ordered their members not to recognize any directives from the federation. The FA president, Mark Louis, was hanging to power tightly, with everyone around calling for his resignation.

        Rough stuff--but it wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't affected the team on the field. In large countries, with a self-perpetuating football infrastructure, FA disputes don't seriously damage the national side. But in a place like St. Lucia, when infighting supplants development, you're one step away from collapse. Technical director Kingsley Armstrong had submitted a clear plan of preparation, including warmup matches and training schedules, but the FA did basically nothing. St. Lucia was limited to one friendly (an 0:2 loss at Grenada), and had to practice on substandard fields. Things were teetering on the brink...

        Then, five days before the first match, tragicomedy struck. The team had scheduled a friendly at the national stadium against a league select XI. When the players arrived at the stadium, they found themselves locked out--the FA hadn't paid the rental fee. Two of the overseas pros offered to pay out of their own pocket; after protracted phone conversations, the players were allowed in without cash up front. But since the stadium had been shut, the coach, players, and assembled press had to put up the goal posts and nets themselves. The game finally started two hours late, to an empty stadium. OK, just roll with the punches--then just before halftime, Trinidad-based pro Valencius Joseph, one of the most important players on the team, collided with the opposing keeper and broke his leg. The match was called off and everyone went home. The FA refused to comment.

        So it was a shattered team that traveled to Panama, and the result was predictable. Julio César Dely Valdés ("Panagol") got the first in the 5th minute, and he was followed on the scoresheet by Luís "El Matador" Tejada, Ricardo "El Patón" Phillips, and Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown. At least no one fell in the canal.

        By all accounts St. Lucia had played decently in the second half, so although the tie was just about settled, there were some hopes for the second leg. They added a new player, David "Bolo" Flavius, who plays in the USA's third division. They made sure the stadium would be open. And no one broke any limbs in the interim.

        Alas, it wasn't enough. Panama had the class, and despite a lively effort and a supportive crowd, St. Lucia never got on the board. El Matador stuck in his sword in the 14th minute, and Panagol got the clincher in the 88th. The third and final goal came in the 90th minute, on a long shot by Alberto Blanco. How long was it? The reporter from the St. Lucia Star described it as "a superb left-foot volley from 50 yards outside the penalty box." Hey, if you say so.

        Panama now moves on to challenge USA, Jamaica, and El Salvador, and St. Lucia goes back to chaos. How the FA thing will turn out is anybody's guess, but my money's on Mark Louis. That's because he traveled to France for the FIFA centennial congress, where he met with your friend and mine, CONCACAF president Jack "Power Is Fun" Warner. Expect the Mark Louis Center of Football Excellence to be dedicated any day now.

    Barbados-St. Kitts & Nevis

        For the small Caribbean sides, a few-foreign based players can make a huge difference. In the preview for this round, I reported that Barbados had achieved their surprising ascent with an entirely home-based squad. Not so, said a poster, and he was right. In fact, while Barbados used their home players in the first three rounds of the 2002 qualifiers, they added a few from England and Ireland for the semifinal games, including the famous 2:1 win over Costa Rica. After the WCQ, though, they went back to their home squad; earlier this spring, as a matter of fact, they were pointedly refusing to call on several players in Ireland.

        But someone got the message, because literally the same day as the preview appeared online (thanks, guys), Barbados announced they were going foreign. First they found Mark Boyce, a fullback from Yeovil. Then, only a few days before the match, they made the big swoop: Paul Ifill, midfielder/striker for Milwall, an FA Cup finalist! They even hired a foreign technical director, Reinhard Fabisch. And FA head Ronald Jones announced that immigration was working to get even more UK players into the fold.

        But St. Kitts & Nevis had already bulked up, adding the Posh Trio, Callum Willock, Sagi Burton, and Adam Newton, all of whom started in the opener. (How do you think Ian "Rumpie" Lake, who scored 7 goals against USVI, felt about being replaced by Willock?) Almost as importantly, coach Lennie Lake had scouted Barbados against Northern Ireland, and came back with an important bit of news: Randy Burrowes, Barbados' left wingback, was prone to push up in attack and not get back in time.

        The knowledge didn't do the Sugar Boyz much good in the first half, when Barbados, playing at home, dominated the action. Boyce didn't play (why bring him over, then?) but Ifill made his share of impressive moves, running through the defense, charging into the box, sending in crosses. In front of goal, though, he couldn't connect, and SKN hung on to keep it scoreless at the interval. Then Lake played his card, moving striker Keith "Kayamba" Gumbs (Sabah, Malaysia) over to the right of attack, to put more pressure on Burrowes' side. In the 77th minute, he got his reward, when Newton ran into the hole left by Burrowes and delivered a cross for Gumbs, who headed in for the first goal. Ten minutes later it was Burton who beat Burrowes. He crossed for Newton--the shot was weak, but took an odd bounce past keeper Adrian Chase, and St. Kitts & Nevis had a surprise 2:0 victory.

        Down by two and forced to go on the road, Barbados was in trouble. There was no time to get new players, and Boyce, presumably not pleased, had returned to England. How desperate were they? The team manager, a man with the wonderful name of Sherlock Yarde, invited a group of "friends of football" to the stadium to discuss ideas for the second game.

        But the dog did nothing in the night. A day before the return leg, starting sweeper Wayne Sobers was sent home for disciplinary reasons. Striker Llewellyn Riley and midfielder Norman Forde were injured and couldn't make the start. And when the team took the field, they were quickly overwhelmed. Darryl Gomez (Metro Lions, Canada) got the first in the 16th minute, and Willock followed quickly with two more. Barbados recovered before halftime with a pair of their own, but in the second half the hosts held them off with ease, for a 3:2 win and 5:2 aggregate.

        All five St. Kitts & Nevis goals had been scored by foreign-based players, which did not escape the notice of Barbados coach Kenville Layne. More legionnaires, he said, and we might have won. (Tell that to Mark Boyce!) Of course, it's not that simple--small Caribbean sides have to find money for recruitment, and then pick and choose carefully. Resources are limited, and it's not easy to integrate a set of new players into an established squad. But St. Kitts & Nevis did it, and now they're on the way to the semifinals for the first time in history. And just their luck, they've landed in by far the weakest group. With a genuine longshot chance at the Hexagonal, they should have the scouts working overtime.

    Nicaragua-Saint Vincent & the Grenadines

        It was the matchup all of CONCACAF had been waiting for: Nicaragua, the eternal Central American minnow, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines, the eternal we-get-slaughtered-every-time-we-play-a-good-team-but-we-always-make-the-group-stage-so-cut-us-some-slack side. Could either team win?

        Preliminary friendlies gave no indication. Nicaragua lost 1:5 at Costa Rica, par for the course. St. Vincent drew at Grenada, lost at St. Kitts & Nevis, and won at home to Martinique, also par. But other signs seemed to favor Nicaragua. St. Vincent coach Aide Shaw wasn't happy with his practice field: it was "bubbly," and goats were wandering on and off the pitch. Plus, he was missing two important pros, strikers Julian Joachim (Leeds, injured) and Rodney Jack (Rushden & Diamonds, trying out for Oldham). In Nicaragua, on the other hand, there wasn't a farm animal in sight, and they had their key legionnaire, attacking midfielder Mario Acevedo, who plays in Guatemala.

        So of course coach Maurizio Battistini left Acevedo on the bench for the opener. After the game he claimed it was because Acevedo hadn't practiced much with the team. (Italian coach? Leaving an attacker on the bench?) He also claimed he'd told the team to keep the ball on the ground, so he had no idea why they'd used the long ball against a St. Vincent side with a clear height advantage. Still, Nicaragua had most of the possession--which meant that St. Vincent's 10th minute goal came on a counterattack, Shandon Samuel crossing for Renson Haynes to open the score.

        The Nicaraguan fans responded positively, pelting the St. Vincent players with ice, water bags, and mango seeds (don't look at me--that's what it said in the article). The Nicaraguan players, after a few moments of panic, settled down and got a 38th minute equalizer from Emilio Palacios. He might have been offside, of course, but so what? Into the locker room all square--or it would have been, had not a simple defensive giveaway gifted Samuel the go-ahead goal for St. Vincent.

        Down a goal, Nicaragua came out for the second half--still no Acevedo. But even Trap himself couldn't have waited much longer. In the 58th minute, the star finally came off the bench, and immediately Nicaragua began to control the game. Several chances later, Rudel Calero finally scrambled home an 81st minute rebound for the second equalizer.

        Full-time 2:2, and everyone could be a little bit happy. In their 9th try, Nicaragua had achieved their first-ever point in a World Cup qualifier. In their 18th (18th!!!) try, SVG had achieved their first-ever point against a Central American team (of course, they had never played Nicaragua before).

        Battistini promised a more attacking approach in the second game, but we've heard that from Italian coaches before. Although Acevedo was there from the start, the setup was a timid 4-4-2. St. Vincent & the Grenadines went to the long ball, and used their superior speed and goat-dodging ability to dominate the action. Samuel and Marlon James got early goals only a minute apart, and it looked like a rout--but you knew it couldn't be that easy. The game got rough, with St. Vincent piling up yellow cards; eventually they'd get five (to Nicaragua's zero) over the course of the contest. In the second half, still down 0:2, Battistini went wild, throwing two more forwards into the lineup, making a 3-3-4, or maybe just a 10-get-the-damn-ball-in-the-goal-you-guys. And wouldn't you know it, Palacios got one back in the 60th minute, and the goal gaped for David Solórzano in the 72nd--but he flubbed it, and Nicaragua ran out of gas. A few minutes later Samuel got the third for SVG; the fourth, fittingly, was an own goal, with Jamal Ballantyne's cross deflecting off captain David Alonso into the net.

        The Vincentians rejoiced, with the newspaper Searchlight exulting that they had defeated a country with a land area 333 times that of SVG. (If that's the criterion, might as well play Mongolia.) Nicaragua, used to losing by a lot more, took the opportunity to squabble among themselves. Keeper Sergio Chamorro quit the side, claiming assistant coach Mauricio Cruz had blamed him for the loss. Other players accused Battistini of emphasizing technique at the expense of physical conditioning. Cruz blamed Battistini for being too defensive. Battistini said he had done his best, was happy with his job, and expected to coach Juventus someday. (Well, two out of three.)

        The bottom line? The amazing incredible SAINT VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES, World Cup qualifiers supreme, have done it again. Their all-time record in WCQ knockout ties: eight wins, zero losses. They're in the semifinal stage for the fourth time in four tries, and with St. Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago in the group, they might--just might--get their very first point. If that isn't worth watching come August, I don't know what is.


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